The UK government’s approach to major democratic issues like Brexit and devolution have been top-down, piecemeal and have left voters on the side-lines, according to a new report from the Electoral Reform Society.
In the report, Westminster Beyond Brexit: Ending the Politics of Division, the ERS argue the Westminster-dominated Brexit process has exposed ‘the UK state’s hyper-centralising and power-hoarding tendencies’. They argue inter-governmental relations between the nations are at breaking point and must be strengthened.
The UK’s longest-standing pro-democracy organisation note that Joint Ministerial Council (JMC) plenary meetings are chaired by a UK government minister – and between 2007 and 2017 they all took place in London.
The ERS also point out that the JMC’s dispute resolution process is chaired by a UK minister and ‘cannot be considered a truly independent mediation mechanism’.
The ERS make several key recommendations to create a ‘democracy that works for the whole UK’:
- Replacing the House of Lords with a fairly-elected chamber of the regions and nations, to ensure they can work together effectively today
- An English Constitutional Convention should consider devolution within England, building upon the work of local citizens’ assemblies and other deliberative democratic processes, which would allow for the self-determination of English localities
- An automatic right for citizens to be involved in shaping the big constitutional questions of our time, and to be involved in politics throughout the decision-making process, not just at election time, with new ‘entry points’ for democratic participation at different levels
- Citizens’ assemblies should be used in a systematic way, to formally engage people in contested and complex political questions
- Bolstered scrutiny mechanisms to give UK and devolved legislatures a guaranteed role in IGR. This may form part of new legal framework for inter-governmental relations (IGR)
- A UK-wide Constitutional Convention on the country’s democratic future and relations between the different parts of the UK
While there have been considerably more formal meetings between Scottish, Welsh and UK ministers in the 32 months since the 2016 referendum than in the 17 years of devolution that preceded it, the ERS say that this can easily change given inter-governmental relations’ informal, uncodified nature. The Society point to recent examples such as the Sewel Convention being breached on Brexit.
In Wales, the UK government recently concluded an agreement with Spain on the rights of Spanish nationals post-Brexit – giving them the right to vote in Welsh local elections – without referring to Wales, where legislation is already planned to give all foreign nationals the vote in both Assembly and local government elections.
Devolution in England has also been a ‘top-down project’, with England the ‘gaping hole in the devolution settlement. Local devolution has been driven by economics rather than what voters want, according to the ERS.
The report calls for replacement of the unelected House of Lords, turning the ‘London-dominated’ house into a fairly-elected chamber of the regions and nations. A reformed upper house would deal with issues relating to inter-governmental relations and represent the constituent parts of the UK.
Exclusive BMG polling for the ERS for the report reveals that two-thirds (67%) of people feel like they have no or very few opportunities to inform and influence decisions made by their elected representatives, and almost half (47%) of people do not feel at all or very represented by parties at Westminster. While 64% of people think that our political system should encourage cooperation between political parties, only 19% believe that it does.
Jess Blair, Director of Electoral Reform Society Cymru, said:
“It’s clear that 20 years on from devolution the mechanisms ensuring that Wales’ voice is heard in Westminster are failing us. Brexit has only served to heighten this.
“Amid political turmoil, it often feels as if our constitution was won in a lucky bag. Westminster continues to fall apart and yet remains stubbornly unreformed, with a totally unelected House of Lords and widespread voter alienation.
“Alongside the creation of a new second chamber that properly represents the nations and regions and fundamental reform of intergovernmental relations we should also look at how to ensure citizen’s voices are properly heard in decision making.
“The first Welsh Citizen’s Assembly, to be run by the National Assembly for Wales this Summer, is a welcome development but we would urge this to be just the first of regular deliberative engagement with people across Wales.
“The Brexit deadlock has revealed the crumbling state of Westminster politics. Only by listening to voters and our communities can we find a way forward.”
Dr Jess Garland, Director of Policy and Research, Electoral Reform Society, said:
““The UK state’s hyper-centralising tendencies have been made clear by the Brexit process with conventions on how we work together as nations stretched and broken.
The Brexit crisis has shown that we need a new model of democracy, based on power sharing not hoarding. Replacing the unelected Lords with a chamber that represents and gives voice to our nations and communities is a vital first step in the move to a better democratic system.
“But fundamental constitutional change can’t be imposed from Westminster alone. It’s time to give people the chance to shape the constitutional questions we face. A UK-wide constitutional convention would bring citizens back together to discuss the future of our nations.
“Citizens should feel energised by their democracy. So we need institutions which are representative and responsive to people’s needs, and spaces where citizens can directly engage in politics – not just on polling day. It’s time to create a democracy that we can all be proud of.”
Notes to Editors
Plaid Cymru have also commented on the report. The party’s Cabinet Office Spokesperson, Ben Lake MP said:
“If it wasn’t obvious beforehand, the last three years have exposed the fundamental fractures in the Westminster political system.
“More than ever before, people feel abandoned, lost and disconnected from the democratic institutions that are meant to represent them.
“Welsh independence is of course my Party’s long-term ambition, but we have long-called for common-sense reforms to the Westminster model, many of which are echoed in this report. From Lords reform to citizens’ assemblies, the Electoral Reform Society make a strong case for real change that will not only change the way our politics looks, but how people engage with it.”
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